Watch That Testimony!

Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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Have you ever been out-Christianed by a non-believer?
Some years ago, we were on a Disney vacation. We’d spent the day in one of the theme parks. We’d walked something like 37 miles, and my feet and legs were aching.
We were on the bus that takes you back to your hotel. I was exhausted and just wanted to relax in my seat and enjoy the air conditioning and maybe grab a catnap on the way back to the hotel.
The bus was already crowded. All the seats were taken. And then, a family stepped aboard. They all looked tired, especially the mother, who was quite visibly pregnant.
I looked at her, and I could see that she was at the end of her rope. And I knew that I should give her my seat. But Disney days are LONG days, and we were ALL at the end of our ropes. And SHE had no idea how tired I was.
And so, I sat there. And then, the little old lady who was sitting next to me stood up and offered HER seat to the young, pregnant mother.
I felt lower than low in that moment. So, trying to ease my guilty conscience, I stood up and offered MY seat to the little old lady.
I seem to remember mumbling something to her about how I was JUST about to offer my seat to the pregnant mother. But everybody on that bus knew I was just being a selfish jerk and that I’d been shamed into doing what I should have done right from the start.
Now, I don’t know whether that little old lady was a Christian or not. But on that day, on that bus, she demonstrated the compassion of Jesus.
And I — the Sunday school teacher and future pastor — demonstrated the selfishness of someone who’d never even MET Jesus.
Sadly, that’s not such an unusual situation among followers of Jesus.
We’re good at quoting Scripture. We’re good at condemning sin — at least, the sins of others. We’re good at looking pious on Sundays. But what we’re often not so good at is exhibiting a testimony of grace to the lost world.
That’s why Mahatma Ghandi could say, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
And that’s one of the problems we create as followers of Jesus, when our words don’t match our actions.
Instead of allowing the lost world to see Christ in us, what they wind up seeing is people who act just as selfishly as the rest of the world.
They see people unmoved by compassion, people unwilling to love those who aren’t like them, people unchanged in any significant way by the grace of God.
We’re continuing our study today in the Book of Jonah, and this lesson about actions matching words is the spiritual growth indicator we uncovered in our text last week.
In the previous week, we learned that a life that’s growing spiritually will be one that’s moving TOWARD God’s commands, not away from them.
This week, as we look at verses 11-16 of chapter 1, we’re going to see the next of the 12 spiritual growth indicators presented to us in this book.
“A life that’s growing spiritually exhibits a testimony to the non-believing world, not the other way around.” [Mark Yarbrough, Jonah: Beyond the Tale of a Whale, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2020), 58.]
As followers of Jesus, we should never be out-Christianed by non-believers. We should never be in a situation where a non-believer is acting more Christlike than we are.
Let’s read the text together, and then we’ll discuss how this part of Jonah’s story gives us insight into a life appropriately lived as a follower of Christ.
Jonah 1:11–16 NASB95
11 So they said to him, “What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?”—for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.” 13 However, the men rowed desperately to return to land but they could not, for the sea was becoming even stormier against them. 14 Then they called on the Lord and said, “We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O Lord, have done as You have pleased.” 15 So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
Now, remember that God had commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, home of some of the fiercest and most brutal of Israel’s enemies, to declare a message of God’s impending judgment upon this great city. The message was intended to move the people of Nineveh to repentance before God.
And you’ll recall that Jonah’s response was to board a ship headed in the opposite direction and try to go as far as he could AWAY from the presence of God, AWAY from his own calling as a prophet of the Most High God.
But once they’d cast off their lines and began to head out of port, God sent a great storm to buffet and toss the ship. The sailors were terrified, but Jonah was asleep below decks.
And finally, after they’d prayed to their pagan gods to no avail, they cast lots to try to figure out who’d brought this calamity upon them.
God, who is in control of everything in this story — and who’s in control of everything even today — caused the lot to fall on Jonah.
And when they’d brought him up from below, they were horrified to learn that this prophet of the very God who’d made the sea and the dry land was actively disobeying Him.
“What have you DONE?” they asked him. “How could you DO this?”
And meanwhile, the storm continued to rage. They’d thrown overboard everything they could to try to lighten the ship’s load. But the ship was foundering, and things looked bleak.
So, they ask this prophet what they can do to appease his God.
“The sailors might have known what to do with Jonah, had he been a criminal guilty of some crime, or if he had accidentally transgressed a law of his God. However, he was guilty of being a servant of his God and directly disobeying the Lord’s order to him. They had no idea what would placate the Creator of the sea in such a case, so they asked Jonah, since he knew his God.” [Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Jon 1:11.]
And, just like me, when I saw that little old lady give up her seat for the pregnant mom, Jonah finally realized his guilt in the situation. “I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you,” he says.
And so, he advises the only reasonable course of action: Throw me into the sea.
Wait, what? Was that REALLY the only course of action that would have saved them?
Of course not! Jonah could have gotten on his knees, then and there, and repented of his disobedience. He could have told them, “Take me back to Joppa, where I can set off for Nineveh to do what the Lord commanded me.”
If Jonah were interested in obedience, that’s what he’d have done. But he was still fighting against God’s plan for him.
In fact, since being thrown into the sea in the midst of a great storm would most likely result in his death, what we see here is the first of three statements indicating that Jonah would rather have died than be in the center of God’s will concerning the Ninevites.
God was using the storm to rebuke and correct Jonah’s disobedience and bad attitude, and Jonah clearly knew this. He’d also have known that God would have withdrawn the storm and His judgment of all in the boat if Jonah had only repented.
But true repentance would have entailed Jonah setting right out to do what God had called him to do. Instead, he preferred to take his own chances in the water.
And this tells us that, for Jonah, it’s still all about him. This was no compassionate, selfless act on behalf of his shipmates. This was, once again, Jonah acting like a child.
Yes, people would be saved by his sacrifice, but that’s not why he suggests it. He simply wants to do whatever he can to escape God’s calling for his life.
“He did not exhibit repentance for fleeing from the Lord but merely resigned himself to the only seeming solution.” [Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, vol. 19B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 235–236.]
So, we don’t see real compassion from Jonah. But we DO see it from his pagan shipmates. Look at verse 13.
“The men rowed desperately to return to land.” In the Hebrew, they dug their oars into the water. They were rowing just as hard as they could to try to get back to land, where they could drop Jonah off.
And lest we miss what a significant act this was, let me ask you something: When a hurricane is headed toward Tidewater, what happens to the Navy ships that are in port?
They’re sent out to sea. The last place a sailor wants to be during a big storm is on a ship near the shore. There’s just too much chance of the ship getting dashed against the rocks or rolling over in the waves near land.
So, the ship’s crew on Jonah’s boat were so concerned for his welfare — even though he was the cause of their troubles — that they risked their lives to try to get him back to shore in the midst of this great storm.
Not only did they demonstrate more concern for Jonah than he had for them — as one commentator says, “They demonstrated more concern for one man than Jonah had for the thousands of men, women, and children in Nineveh.” [Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Jon 1:13.]
Despite the fact that moments earlier they were praying to false gods, at this point, they were acting more godly than Jonah was.
And there’s an important lesson in this verse that’s easy to miss.
When faced with the consequences of our sins, we’re prone to look for easy, superficial solutions.
Giving up my seat to the little old lady who’d just shamed me, for instance, instead of repenting for my me-first attitude and maybe even confessing it to THEM. Or, as Jonah might put it, throw me overboard so I might be able to avoid truly repenting.
But real repentance often requires that we take radical action to get to the root of the problem, instead of just prettying ourselves up on the outside.
Only when you deal with the wrong attitudes that are the basis for your sins will you ever have victory over them.
So, the men on the ship start rowing just as hard as they can in a valiant effort to ensure Jonah’s safety. But the storm just gets worse. God has marked Jonah for correction, and since Jonah’s on this boat, everyone aboard is in danger as long as he’s still aboard and unrepentant.
But still, they hesitate to toss this reluctant and disobedient prophet over the rails. At least until they’ve done something we have no evidence Jonah had yet done: They pray.
In a book that’s full of irony, this ironic turn of events wouldn’t have been lost on the Jewish people for whom Jonah gave this account.
A prophet of the Most High God had run from God and God’s calling on his life. He’d fallen asleep in the hold of the ship, just as insensitive to the world as he was to God.
He’d been awakened and asked to pray, but he’d apparently remained silent. He’d been given the chance to repent and remove the calamity that threatened the ship. Yet he persisted in his obstinate refusal to do so.
And finally, instead of going to God in repentant prayer, he watched as this pagan crew prayed not to their false gods, but to His God, Yahweh, the one true God.
When everything else had failed, short of committing what they had every reason to expect was murder by tossing Jonah overboard in the storm, then they turned to God.
As someone put it to me recently, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
The crew had seen the supernatural power and suddenness of the storm. They’d watched the lot fall to Jonah. And they’d heard his somewhat grudging confession of disobedience to the Lord.
There was no longer any question in their minds that the God Jonah worshiped — the one who made the seas and the dry land — was in control of what was happening here, that He was sovereign over everything.
But a God of such power might not take kindly to them killing one of His prophets. So, they prayed for absolution for what they were about to do.
Don’t kill us on his account, they prayed. And if he’s innocent — which Jonah wasn’t, by the way — don’t count his blood against us.
“Do not let us perish on account of this man’s life.”
Whereas Jonah had been called to deliver a warning to the Ninevites that would bring life to those who believed, in his disobedience, he was instead putting the men aboard his ship at risk of death.
To their credit, they seem to have understood that their lives were in the hands of God. But I’m not sure they understood that JONAH’S life was in God’s hands, too.
Even so, they make a remarkable confession at the end of this prayer, a confession that even Jonah isn’t willing to make at this point: God is sovereign over everything.
He is sovereign in His judgment, and He is sovereign in His grace. Both judgment and grace are His to give as He sees fit.
And that’s a good thing, because only God’s justice is perfect justice. And only God’s grace has the power to save. His sovereignty is the reason we can have peace and hope, knowing that HE is in control.
As the pagan sailors put it on Jonah’s ship, God does what He pleases.
The idea that God does whatever He pleases appears here and in three other places in the Old Testament. Each of those appearances contrasts the powerlessness of idols with the power of the one true God.
There’s a good example in Isaiah, chapter 46. Listen to the contrast God makes between Himself and the idols He is calling Israel to set aside.
Isaiah 46:5–10 NASB95
5 “To whom would you liken Me And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike? 6 “Those who lavish gold from the purse And weigh silver on the scale Hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; They bow down, indeed they worship it. 7 “They lift it upon the shoulder and carry it; They set it in its place and it stands there. It does not move from its place. Though one may cry to it, it cannot answer; It cannot deliver him from his distress. 8 “Remember this, and be assured; Recall it to mind, you transgressors. 9 “Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, 10 Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’;
“I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” In other words, I do whatever I please.
God isn’t like those idols made of silver and gold the ones that sit on a shelf in a corner, never moving, never answering prayers, never able to do a thing to deliver their worshipers from evil.
God is powerful and engaged with humanity. He LOVES us, He has compassion for us. The idols of this time — to say nothing of the idols of OUR time — were unworthy of their worship. Only God is worthy.
Jonah had SAID he feared the Lord. But the pagan crew of this ship DEMONSTRATED that they feared the Lord.
Now, the fact that they prayed to the Lord God — and even that they made sacrifices and vows to Him — isn’t clear proof that they had come to saving faith in God.
But it won’t surprise me to meet a member of this crew in heaven one day, because they had a life-changing experience on this boat.
And they’ll have a whale of a story to tell about it, I’m sure.
So, they pray, and then I imagine they all looked at one another and then at Jonah for what must have seemed like an eternity. And then they hoist him up and over the rails and, “SPLASH!”
And immediately, the sea stopped its raging. In the Hebrew, this is literally, “the sea stood from its anger.”
God had done what the pagan false gods could NOT do. He immediately calmed the seas. And the sailors responded appropriately, with worship.
We’re told that they offer a sacrifice to God and that they make vows — probably to make more sacrifices when they’re back on land.
And as the ship departs, headed toward the horizon, there’s Jonah doing the dog-paddle, adrift and alone on the sea, wondering what he’s gotten himself into.
But I don’t want you to miss something important here, something that was pointed out to me while I was researching for this message.
“Through the defection of Jonah a ship’s crew acknowledges the Creator’s power, comes to the point of worshiping him, and acknowledges him as Lord. If this is the outcome of Jonah’s disobedience, what will God bring to pass as the result of Jonah’s obedience?” [Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Jon 1:15, quoting Baldwin.]
Well, we’ll see the answer to that in a few weeks. But feel free to read ahead if you just can’t wait.
Meanwhile, let’s not lose sight of this week’s spiritual growth indicator: “A life that’s growing spiritually exhibits a testimony to the non-believing world, not the other way around.”
The testimony that Jonah lived before this ship’s crew was that he knew God’s power and just didn’t care.
But the testimony of the crew was that the God who’d created the seas and then sent this great storm upon them was worthy of their worship and their obedience. That He is sovereign over everything and everyone.
But that’s not usually how these kinds of things work out. Most of the time when we fail to exhibit a testimony of the grace and mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ, the result is that those who know we’re Christians just shake their heads and say, “See? He’s no different than everybody else. What good is Jesus, then?”
Let’s not allow the lost world to have a more Christlike testimony than we who FOLLOW Jesus!
Let’s NOT be like Jonah.
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